The next governor of Virginia will be Chuck Robb.

The oft-indulged notion among Northern Virginians that this region will eventually contain enough people and voters to be Virginia's political power center is a pipe dream. Northern Virginia now contains slightly more than 22 percent of the state's population, up from about 20 percent in 1970 but still considerably below the anticipated 25 percent, which many once thought would be reached by 1980-- and far below the level that would enable it to dominate statewide elections.

While Northern Virginia has been growing, the rest of the state has been growing too. As part of the Sunbelt, Virginia's smaller cities and towns experienced rapid growth in the 1970s. Suburban areas around Richmond and satellite cities in the Norfolk area grew tremendously. Areas once thought of as rural are becoming suburban. The newcomers attracted to this part of the state see Virginia as a place of stable and reliable government, where nothing ever changes very fast. So while we have a Northern Virginian running for governor this year, he is not going to be elected because he is from this area. But, for other reasons of political geography, he will be.

In the main, Virginia's electorate is settled-suburban and semi-rural in character. Central cities do not determine elections in Virginia, because they do not contain enough voters. Those in the cities who are registered tend not to vote in sufficient numbers.

The suburbs of Washington, the Richmond area, the Shenandoah Valley, Southwest and Tidewater are the major regions, but the heartland of the commonwealth--and the territory that has determined Virginia's elections for generations--is that broad, rolling expanse known as Jefferson Country. It begins at Fredericksburg, circles southwestward to encompass Charlottesville, Staunton and Lynchburg, brushes Roanoke and then swings east across the tobacco and peanut counties into the 4th Congressional District portion of Tidewater; it turns north at Suffolk, rounds the Northern Neck and closes back on Fredericksburg. It contains all of the 3rd, 4th and 5th congressional districts and parts of the 1st, 6th and 7th.

To the voters of this vast region, the 1981 election poses a dilemma. They look at the choices and see two candidates, young by their standards and unseasoned in Virginia's political traditions. The old-timers can recall the fiscal conservatism of Harry Byrd Sr. in his term as governor; most remember the Depression, and many are veterans of World War II. The contenders this year are not of that era, and generally these voters find little to identify with in their media campaigns. Understandably, then, the polls now show many of them to be undecided on the choice they must make by Nov. 3.

In the last two weeks or so of the campaign, the pollsters will determine that between 17 and 20 percent of the voters are still undecided. This will be seen as an unusually high percentage considering the nearness of the election. Newspaper editorial writers will ponder this development and speculate on what it portends. The reason will simply be that many of the folks in the heartland will not yet have been able to make up their minds.

Then they will take a close, hard look at the personal traits of the candidates to determine who in their opinion has the best chance of closing on their image of a governor in the Virginia tradition-- a reliable, steady, predictable person, who will hold an even hand on the helm. They will consider briefly the candidates' positions on the litmus-test issues --taxes, government spending and crime --but because of the difficulty of distinguishing between them on these questions, they will, to an extent unusual for these voters, base their final opinions on personal impressions.

Then the word will begin to circulate among the country stores, on the porches of the courthouses, and in the bowling alley lunchrooms of Southside, that the most dependable, least unpredictable of the two candidates is Chuck Robb.

The term "conservative" won't be used. In their opinion, it is a word that does not fit either of the candidates, but they will respond, just as they did in the old days when the word was passed that one candidate, the more conservative one, was to be preferred over the other. Then the undecided will move in significant numbers into the column of Chuck Robb, and he will be the next person to stand on the steps of the Capitol in Richmond on a cold January afternoon to take the oath of office as governor of Virginia.